The Number 10 Issue
How can Tranmere solve the Norwood problem?
Hello and welcome to Deadly Submarine's 2019-20 League One countdown. Twelve months ago, we launched our inaugural countdown feature in preparation for Tranmere's return to the EFL. The response was incredible, and so we are delighted to be able to bring the feature back as we look ahead to Rovers' third-tier return.
With just ten days until Rochdale visit Prenton Park for the opening fixture of the League One calendar, we will bring you a new piece every day between today and 2nd August, with each related to the number of days remaining in some manner.
Make sure to follow us on Twitter (@DSubmarine17), Facebook ( @DeadlySubmarine) and our new Instagram account (@deadlysubmarineofficial) to ensure you keep abreast of the latest releases. Each new entry will be released at 6am on the appropriate date, so you should have plenty of time to digest the day's content.
And if you do miss an instalment, starting from tomorrow you will find links at the bottom of each day's entry to take you back to any that may have escaped your attention.
Please find below the introductory episode in the 2019-20 countdown.
On day two of last year's countdown, we published an article entitled The Number 9 Issue, which referenced the departure of 2017-18 National League Golden Boot winner Andy Cook, who left the Club to join then League One Walsall. The piece explored the potential impacts of Cook's decision and, more importantly, how Tranmere could replace the 51 goals he scored in just 89 games.
Fast-forward twelve months and the summer has been spent trying to replace the occupant of Number 10, not just in the country but at Prenton Park as well, James Norwood bringing a four-year tenure with the Super Whites to a close by joining Ipswich Town on 10th June 2019. As the country waves goodbye to an almost universally unpopular Prime Minister, one suspects the SWA will be far more subdued as they adjust to their new post-Norwood reality.
Let's just be blunt; there is little chance of Tranmere purchasing a like-for-like replacement for their former icon. However, there are other avenues Micky Mellon could explore as he attempts to mitigate the fallout of losing the team's talisman. From an external perspective, it appears he has three realistic options; cabinet reshuffle, enter coalition or change the policy brief.
We will explore each of those in turn as we assess Rovers' next steps in addressing the Number 10 Issue.
Before attempting to fix the problem, it is important to first understand the implications of Norwood's departure. The SWA will need little reminder of his contribution to the Tranmere cause, but for those less familiar, let's try to appreciate exactly who Rovers have lost.
In 2018-19, James scored 32 goals in 53 appearances in all competitions, equivalent to 0.60 goals per game. His 29 regular-season League Two goals saw him finish as the Club's top scorer and also secure the League Two Golden Boot as the highest scorer in the division, a stunning 8 goals clear of the joint-second-placed Tyler Walker and Nicky Maynard of Mansfield Town and Bury respectively.
Scoring a goal every 150 minutes earned him huge personal success; League Two Player of the Month August 2018, League Two Team of the Season, PFA League Two Team of the Season, EFL Team of the Season and the aforementioned League Two Golden Boot came alongside a virtual clean sweep of internal Club accolades.
He was an absolute revelation in Rovers' return to the EFL, shouldering much of the burden of Cook's departure himself and firing the Club beyond where most would have felt reasonably possible.
But he was not a one-season wonder.
Since joining as Tranmere's first non-League signing under Gary Brabin in 2015, James plundered 93 goals in 189 appearances, an average of 0.49 goals per game making the 1-in-2 striker the eighth-highest goalscorer in the Club's 135-year history.
More detail on the statistics of his incredible Rovers career can be found in James' Icons profile, however he was not simply a ball-in-net commodity. During his time at Prenton Park, he formed a unique bond with the SWA and moulded himself into the face of the Club. When one thought Tranmere Rovers, one also thought James Norwood. Indeed, for many of Rovers' League Two rivals last season, they no doubt became one in the same.
Although Rovers fans could rightly point to Norwood's teammates and highlight their respective inputs, there is no escaping the fact that James scored 46% of Tranmere's League Two goals. He worked as hard as any player that has ever donned the Super White. He inspired as many of the SWA2, if not more, as any other player in the squad. He provided as much entertainment off the field as he did on it, with fans often wondering what his next antics would be.
In short, yes, Tranmere have lost a lot of goals, energy and enthusiasm.
Further to that, they have also lost a character with whom they could identify, who had bought into their dream of an EFL return and had endeavoured with all that he possessed until he had obtained it for them, fittingly scoring the winning goal against Boreham Wood that sealed that very objective.
He will always be a Tranmere legend.
Nevertheless, he's gone and as a Club, team and fanbase there must be an effort to move on.
In that spirit, let's look at the potential routes by which they can govern their own destiny for 2019-20.
It is likely the first order of business for the new Prime Minister will be to assess the personnel at their disposal and conduct a cabinet reshuffle. Similarly, Rovers will almost certainly have to undertake a reshuffle of their own, using the players voted into the squad over the summer by the admittedly diminutive, yet all-powerful electorate of Micky Mellon, Michael Jackson, Mark and Nicola Palios and any Club employees responsible for transfers.
There appear to be four main contenders to replace Norwood.
In 2018-19, Connor ended the season as the Club's second-top scorer with 13 goals in 55 appearances in all competitions, which equates to 0.24 goals per game. The only player apart from Norwood to reach double figures last season, his 8 league goals represented 13% of Tranmere's league tally.
Since signing in 2016, he has netted 29 goals in 127 appearances (0.23 goals per game) and his career statistics are 74 goals in 284 appearances (0.26 goals per game). Whilst he has a healthy goalscoring rate for a player played predominantly out wide or behind the striker whilst at Prenton Park, his real assets come from his energy and creativity for others. Arguably the only player in the squad to run more selflessly than Norwood, could Connor become the focus of the attack going forwards?
Perhaps Jennings is now 'the' face of Tranmere Rovers having scored in two of three play-off finals, assisted in the other and scored the goal that returned the Club to League One?
If Norwood was Rovers' Chancellor, in charge of keeping the numbers ticking over, then it could be argued Jennings was Foreign Secretary, representing the Club's needs all over the park. Will he now be given the role more akin to his squad number of 11?
In 2018-19, Paul was Tranmere's third-top scorer with 7 goals in 29 appearances in all competitions (0.24 goals per game). Having completed his debut season at Rovers, plenty of fans appear to rate him, with some preferring to have seen him play a bit more frequently than he did in 2018-19. His 29 games was almost half the totals of Norwood and Jennings for 2018-19.
On the scoring front, his 4 league goals provided 6% of Rovers' total League Two output. Mullin has a career total of 45 goals in 216 appearances (0.21 goals per game), however he scored 7 in 17 between August and November 2018 (0.41 goals per game).
At just 24 years old, if he can recapture that form with a sustained run in the team, Paul could be a key part of Rovers' attacking play and, of the options available, his 181 minutes per goal in 2018-19 is by far the closest to Norwood's over the course of the season.
During an injury-hit 2018-19, Ishmael scored 1 goal in 2 appearances for Tranmere (0.5 goals per game) before suffering a season-ending injury at home to Swindon Town on 19th January. Prior to his January arrival, Miller had been at Oldham Athletic, where he scored 4 goals in 18 appearances in all competitions (0.22 goals per game), whilst his career totals are 53 goals in 276 appearances (0.19 goals per game).
He possesses physical attributes unlike any other striker in the squad and brings a different dimension to Rovers' play. Unlikely to replace Norwood's role in the team, Ishmael seems more akin to Andy Cook, bringing the height and physicality whilst also able to score some goals if he finds himself in the correct position.
At 32 years old and vastly experienced, Ishmael is possibly the most likely to be the main focus of attacks if he can prove his fitness. Whilst his scoring numbers indicate a 1-in-5 striker, it is important to remember the standard of opposition and calibre of defences Miller has faced for the majority of his career.
So far, the only permanent new striker for 2019-20, Stefan endured a difficult 2018-19. He scored just 3 goals in 28 appearances for Bristol Rovers (0.11 goals per game). However, he appears to have endured an unfortunate relationship with the fans at the Memorial Stadium and this no doubt impacted his performances.
For balance, it may be worth noting that he had scored 2 of his goals in the first 8 games (0.25 goals per game), which would give him a solid 11-12 goals if maintained throughout the season.
He also failed to score in 5 games on loan at Shrewsbury Town in 2019 but has a career total of 63 goals in 250 appearances (0.25 goals per game), again good for a 1-in-4 tally. During his time at Dover Athletic, he scored 40 goals in 86 appearances (0.47 goals per game), whilst during the 2017-18 season, he scored 14 in 54 appearances for Shrewsbury Town (0.26 goals per game).
Whilst he is unlikely to provide a singular answer to the post-Norwood question, there is enough to suggest that, with the correct mentality, he could more than contribute to a collaborative effort to replace the goals.
If Micky Mellon feels he does not have the assets required to pursue his legislative agenda for the forthcoming League One campaign, there is also the potential of using the loan market. By entering into a coalition with another club, Tranmere can make use of said club's assets to supplement their own goalscoring threat.
For example, in 2018-19, a season-long loan of Jonathan Smith saw the Bristol City winger play 40 times and score 5 goals in all competitions, including 4 in League Two, which represented 6% of Rovers' league total.
In preparation for 2019-20, Tranmere have entered a coalition with Coventry City that allows highly-rated forward Jordan Ponticelli to join the Prenton Park fold. A young 20-year-old striker with just 34 appearances to his name, he has 6 senior career goals (0.18 goals per game).
However, 2018-19 was a difficult season for Jordan as he missed a couple of months with injury and struggled for playing time. In his first full season as a professional, he scored 6 in 26 (0.23 goals per game).
Jordan also possessed a lethal scoring rate at youth level. Whilst at Gordon Strachan's football academy, he scored 39 goals in 37 games (1.05 goals per game). If Tranmere can develop his professional output to even half of that, they will have gone a long way to replacing the goals lost by Norwood's departure. However, this could take time and it would be unfair to expect Ponticelli to replace the former number 10 on his own.
Whilst at the time of writing there has been just one coalition formed between Tranmere and another club, the potential for further loans will remain until the transfer deadline of 5pm on 2nd September.
Changing The Policy Brief
During last season's Andy Cook article, reference was made to recreating his goals in the aggregate. Looking at the striking options available to Micky Mellon in 2019-20, it seems apparent that there is no like-for-like replacement for Norwood in goalscoring terms, with all options closer to 1-in-4 forwards as opposed to Norwood's 1-in-2.
Therefore, the final option available to Tranmere appears to be changing the policy brief to source goals from elsewhere in the squad.
In 2018-19, in all competitions, the central midfield players contributed 12 goals, with 10 coming in the league. Ollie Banks (4 goals), Harvey Gilmour (3 goals), David Perkins (2 goals) and Jay Harris (1 goal) combined to produce 16% of Rovers' League Two output, proving there are goals in other areas of the team.
Players who played primarily as defenders contributed just 4 league goals in 2018-19. Manny Monthé (2 goals), Adam Buxton (1 goal) and Ritchie Sutton (1 goal) combined for just 6% of Rovers' league total.
With the team reliant on forwards and attacking players for 78% of league goals, there is an opportunity to amend the balance for 2019-20. Throughout his tenure as Tranmere manager, Micky Mellon has proven adept at changing the formation to suit the players at his disposal.
Perhaps in 2019-20, he may revert to a 352 formation he has at times deployed at Prenton Park, providing an extra body in the middle of the pitch to release the goalscoring potential of players such as Banks, Perkins and Gilmour?
If Rovers can't find the one player to replace Norwood at the tip of the attack, could a switch to a 433 provide an alternative route to goal for Tranmere's newest striking line-up?
With players such as Corey Blackett-Taylor joining over the summer, the side has a youthfulness and pace that could perhaps lend itself to being a defence-first, counterattacking outfit? Or will the addition of players such as Darren Potter bring a new possession-based style of play?
Although Norwood scored 32 goals, he provided just 2 assists. Conversely, Jennings (10 assists), Banks (8 assists), Mullin (5 assists) and Kieron Morris (3 assists) created 26 goals between them, in addition to their own scoring exploits. There is creativity in the squad and finding a new system of play to unlock that will be key to a post-Norwood life.
Losing Norwood was a huge blow. However, there are ways to move forward.
Before 2018-19, similar questions were being asked (including by Deadly Submarine!) surrounding Andy Cook's departure, and Tranmere went on to gain a second successive promotion.
It is possible that, whilst not having an out-and-out goalscoring threat one could back for the League One Golden Boot, Rovers actually have a more balanced scoring base than they did at the same stage last season. The attacking options provide a blend of pace, power, height, creativity, finishing and, most importantly, depth.
With 19 goals between Norwood and Jennings in 2018-19, the gap between the top and second-top scorers could have been an issue if Norwood had been suspended or injured for any length of time. Having multiple players of similar potency could be one of the positives of Norwood's departure. For example, is a team healthier if one player scores 32 goals or if four players score 8 each? When factoring in potential injuries, suspensions and indeed, transfers, surely the latter is better for the team than the former?
In addition to the permanent members of Rovers' squad, effective use of the loan market could provide further aid in solving the Norwood conundrum, with Jordan Ponticelli the first of those supplementing Mellon's arsenal.
Norwood's unique attributes will almost certainly see a change in style at Prenton Park, and the impact of any such changes, be it in formation, philosophy or another aspect of the game, will determine Rovers' success in a post-Norwood reality.
Much like the country, the summer will see a new man take over Number 10 at Tranmere.
They've got pink boots to fill.
Remember: Check back tomorrow for day two of our ten-day countdown to the 2019-20 season.09 Days »